AP: ‘Bama Christians only Baptists

I’ll admit that I’m a bit ignorant about some of the things that go on in the corners of this country. But there is no way that the inference created by this AP story can be correct.

You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop in Alabama, so it’s not hard to find people who agreed with their new governor this week when he said only Christians are his brothers and sisters.

Even so, some of his brothers and sisters thought he could have found a nicer way to say it.

It’s unlikely that Republican Gov. Robert Bentley will suffer politically from his inauguration day remarks, which he made from a church pulpit at a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday service Monday.

The article then goes on to give the impression that in Alabama there are no Christians but Baptists. Missing from an otherwise good story that moves the AP’s coverage of Bentley’s comments beyond the predictable knee-jerk response from day one — my colleague Bobby already noted that many of the early stories were missing any context — the AP mentions only one Christian who isn’t Baptist.

Sure, the overwhelming majority of Alabaman Christians — maybe Alabamans in general — are Baptist. But the state is full of Christians who aren’t. There are Methodists and pentecostals and I imagine a smattering of members of other denominations. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, there also are about 93,000 members of the Church of Christ; as someone who grew up in that denomination, I know that more than a few of them would prefer to not call a Baptist their brother.

That being said, this story was a nice attempt to help folks from outside Alabama understand the cultural context within which the states new governor would give an inaugural address that bordered on altar call. This story does that by missing man-on-the-street with some of the state’s religious history.

Baptist churches are a fixture in every tiny corner of the state, many of them Southern Baptist, the same denomination Bentley follows. …

A lifelong Baptist who works at a two-pump gas station in rural Rock Creek, Angel Byram said Thursday she understands what Bentley meant with his original comments.

“I get what he was saying. It didn’t bother me,” said Byram, who was selling a soft drink and headache powders to a coal miner at the small store on Warrior River Road.

“But being in a public office like that (Bentley) should have thought of others,” she said. “If I wasn’t Baptist and didn’t believe that way I would have been offended.”

Again, there are plenty of non-Baptist Christians out there who understood and even supported what Bentley said. But Byram’s point is an important one that I imagine the AP reporter was using to help reveal why some people were offended by Bentley’s comments.

I just wish the reporter had included more than just one non-Baptist perspective. What did pentecostals think? What about Catholics? Orthodox Christians?

I’m also now curious about whether the governor would consider all Christians his brothers and sisters or whether he would take the narrow road. After Bentley’s lesson this past week, I suspect that’s a question no reporter could get honestly answered.

PHOTO: The handiwork of Jenkins Signs

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  • robt southwell

    Here’s a better question: what does this governor’s religious bigotry mean for ordinary Alabama atheists?

  • Bern

    I don’t think the point of the AP story is how many different members of how many different Christian denominations would understand or agree with Gov. Bentley’s interpretation of brotherhood. In the context of Alabama, where the vast majority of the citizens ARE Southern Baptists, what’s interesting is that those the reporter quotes actually get why some people might not have liked Gov. Bentley’s words. They have empathy which their brother in Christ apparently lacks.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Would have been interesting to see what some Baptist leaders like Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist, or someone from the Cooperative Baptists in Alabama would have too say.

    Interestingly – when the former Gov. Bob Riley, another Baptist, took office, one of his first moves was to try to apply the Bible to the state’s tax code–which was extremely controversial with his fellow Baptists.

    There was at least one Baptist in the AP story:

    Kay Cummins of Hueytown said she wasn’t offended by Bentley’s speech and didn’t think he should have apologized.

    “I wouldn’t have,” said Cummins, working in the fellowship hall at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which she attends.

  • Bram

    To answer robt southwell’s question: Robert Bently’s “religious bigotry” means about as much for “ordinary Alabama atheists” as Barack Obama’s — or robt southwell’s — religious bigotry means for people who (in Obama’s phrase) “cling to religion.” In other words, it doesn’t mean a lot.

  • Julia

    From the language used, it seems the governor was using Christian to mean “born again” folks. That would not include a lot of people that others consider Christians, particularly members of the ancient Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches.

  • Maureen

    Nobody is mentioning “neighbor” at all. I mean, that’s the broader, more relevant category. But I guess if you’re looking for a dichotomy of “brother” vs. “gaijin who are dead to me”, it’s not helpful to bring up “neighbor”. :)

  • John Pack Lambert

    There is a Mormon Temple in Alabama, which to those who know of Mormons means there are a good number, although they are under 1% of the population. The Mobile Alabama Diocese of the Catholic Church is one of the older ones in the US. There are also lots of non-Baptist Protestants in Alabama. Pentacostals, Presbyterians, Epicopalians and so on. I am sure there are some Eastern Orthodox Christians and other Christians who do not fall under any of the above headings.

    In fact Georgia has a higher percentage of Baptists than Alabama, and Nagaland State in India has a higher percentage of Baptists than Georgia. Nagaland is the most Baptist 1st level sub-national entity in the world.

    I think a much more interesting journalistic angle to this story would be to ask if there are any white Baptists in Alabama who are outraged that the governor was speaking at a historically black congregation? The general ignoring of the fact that the governor was trying to give a speech that destroys the legacy of racial division is to me the biggest flaw in the coverage of the story in the media.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Julia,
    As a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) I felt that I would be included in the rhetoric of the governor. He might not want to include me himself, but his words had no tendency to exclude me.

    The notion of being spiritually begotten of Christ at least resonates with Mormons.

    However, at that “born again” is not the same as Baptist.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Wikipedia reports, based on the 2001 Religious Identity Survey, that 37% of Alabama’s population is Baptist. This is the largest single listed denomination (if Baptist can be called such, arguably it is multiple denominations, but oh well). The next largest specific group is the 13% Catholic, followed by the 9% Methodist. The next level is 6% “Christian- no denomination supplied”, as well as 6% “Refused” and 6% No religion.

    The majority of Alabama residents are not Baptist. It is true that the 37% who are Baptist out-number the 26% that are Protestants other than baptist, but 37% is less than half the population. Although this is 10-year-old data, there is no reason to think it is particularly out of date, and even less to think that if it is out of date it would show a Baptist majority today.

    It appears that Brad is right that this article is flawed in its portrayal of the Alabama religious scene, and that many of you have so fully bought this false understanding of religion in the Southern United States that you are willing to believe things like “the majority of citizens are Baptists” which is not true.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Bern,
    I re-read your statement again. There is no way that the “vast” majority of the citizens of Alabama are “Southern Baptists” unless you exclude African Americans from citizenship, and even then it appears to not be the case.

    Southern Baptist is a specific congregational affiliation. It is a sub-set of the 37% that is Baptist. In general Afircan-American baptists are not part of the Southern Baptist Convention. On the other hand Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are Baptists but of more fundamentalist types that the Southern Baptists.

    When you realize that the “vast majority” of the citizens of Alabama are not Southern Baptists the statements by those quoted make a lot more sense.

    This article reminds me of some of the trend articles that are behind the times that Brad at times assesses, except this is a case of an article that reflects a world that never was, but has become even less present in the last 20 years.

  • Bern

    JPL: I have cut and pasted below the Wikipedia entry which I confess I read too quickly and thus made an incorrect assertion. Mea culpa (seriously).

    What I should have said was according to W, the vast majority of Alabamians are Evangelical Protestants; and the highest number of this majority are Southern Baptists. So, SBs are the “majority of the majority”. Which makes them a minority if the numbers are sliced simply by percentage.

    The entry doesn’t break down affiliation by race and I accept your expertise

    Religion
    Alabama is located in the middle of the Bible Belt. A majority of people in Alabama today identify as Protestant. The Mobile area is notable for its large percentage of Catholics, owing to the area’s founding as part of the French colony of La Louisiane and later history under Spanish rule.[citation needed] As of 2000, the three largest denominational groups in Alabama are Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic. The Southern Baptist Convention has the highest number of adherents in Alabama with 1,380,121, followed by the United Methodist Church with 327,734 members, and the Catholic Church with 150,647 adherents.[55]

    In a 2007 survey, nearly 70% of respondents could name all four of the Christian Gospels. Of those who indicated a religious preference, 59% said they possessed a “full understanding” of their faith and needed no further learning.[56] In a 2007 poll, 92% of Alabamians reported having at least some confidence in churches in the state.[57][58] In the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 80% of Alabama respondents reported their religion as Christian (other than Catholic,) 6% as Catholic, and 11% as having no religion at all.[59